history of perfumeThese days, there are thousands of different perfumes and colognes available to women and men. There are basic fragrances and ones that are more complex, combining several different scents to create unique perfumes that are designed to draw out different aspects of the wearer’s personality. Regardless of occasion you want the perfume for and no matter what kind of message you are trying to send, there is a scent that is perfect for you.

However, when you put on your signature scent, you probably don’t think much about the history of perfume. Believe it or not, perfume hasn’t always been readily available to anyone who wants it. In the earliest days of perfume manufacturing, there were only a few basic scents and those fragrances were used by only the rich and powerful for a variety of purposes, not all of which were related to beauty. The history of perfume is a long and unique, taking many winding paths before ending up as the industry you know today. From the ancient days of Egypt to the modern times of famous perfume designers, the history of perfume is nothing short of fascinating.

history_of_perfume_egyptHistory of Perfume: Ancient Egypt

As you look back on the history of perfume, the first known cultural use of manufactured fragrance was during the reign of the Egyptian Queen Sheba, who ruled over both Ethiopia and Yemen. Initially, perfume was restricted to religious ceremonies, which involved burning incense during the embalming of the dead. According to some Egyptian scholars, when the tomb of King Tutankhamen was opened, the fragrance of the Egyptian perfume, kyphi was the scent that greeted those who were present.

Other scents, including myrrh, were considered more valuable than precious metals like silver and gold. In fact, the Holy Bible mentions myrrh as one of the gifts brought by the Three Wise Men to celebrate the birth of Christ. Perfume was not easy to obtain, and therefore, very expensive. Only royalty, including both men and women, would have been able to afford these fragrances.

Although in the history of perfume scent played a major role in religious ceremonies, it was not only used for that purpose. Egyptians often used fragrances like honey and cinnamon to anoint their bodies. There is a famous painting on the walls of the Edfu Temple that depicts the process of distilling perfume from the flowers of a white Madonna lily.

Even though much of Egypt’s opulence and majesty waned with the death of Cleopatra, the Egyptians continued to use fragrance in various aspects of their culture. Interestingly, though, most of the flowers and herbs they used to make their perfumes were imported from other countries, including Arabia, India, Palestine and Persia.

history of perfume persiaHistory of Perfume: Persia

The next stop during the history of perfume is Persia, where many of the fragrances used by the Egyptians initially came from. This culture also used perfume as a symbol of royalty. Kings were crowned with labyzuz and myrrh and visitors to their palaces could smell the sweet aromas of exotic floral scents wafting from the kings’ chambers. Wealthy landowners would cultivate ornamental gardens in their backyards, where they would grow flowers like violets, lilacs, jasmine and rose to later distill into fragrant perfumes.

Of all the flowers growing in these gardens, none was more coveted than the red rose. The light scent of the flower would intensify as the petals dried, and this fragrance became the symbol of both the relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra and the House of Lancaster during the famous War of the Roses. The Persians were the first culture to begin drying flower petals and preserving them in clay jars to be opened at a later time during a special event. The product of this process later became known as potpourri.

Not only would perfume be used to mark important occasions, but many wealthy Persians also used perfumes to scent their bodies after bathing. Men would douse their beard with civet, and musk would be used on other parts of their bodies. Women continued to use perfume to complete their beauty regimens and to anoint their bodies after bathing.

history_of_perfume_greece2History of Perfume: Greece

The Phoenicians brought perfume to Greece, where the formulas and techniques were improved upon by female perfumers. The Greeks believed that perfume was invented by the gods and one popular myth of the time said that whenever a god or goddess visited the mortals, their arrival was marked with the sweet scent of perfume.

The Greeks loved to use excessive amounts of perfume in their various ceremonies and even for personal use. In fact, there was a designated fragrance for each body part. In Homer’s Ulysses, the use of scented oils for anointing the dead is referenced, but fragrances also played an important role in weddings, where the bride’s maids would wear hyacinth crowns as they witnessed the joining of man and wife.

Around 640 BC, Solon, a poet and politician, decided the Greeks were overusing perfumes and restricted the sale of the fragrances by issuing a decree. Moreover, some of the most highly respected philosophers like Socrates did not approve of the use of perfumes, declaring them “effeminate.” However, the Greeks did not follow suit and perfume continued to be a top-selling product among those who could afford it.

Although throughout the history of perfume, the Egyptians popularized perfumes for ceremonial and personal use, the Greeks actually made a bigger impact on the industry. Not only did they categorize each perfume according to the part of the plant they came from, but they also documented perfume composition and broadened the use of fragrance to all aspects of society, including the first Olympic games, where the first prize was a work of art depicting a golden violet.

history_of_perfume_romeHistory of Perfume: Rome

Not to be outdone by Greece, the Romans became interested in perfume beginning in 750 BC. At the start of the Roman Empire, fragrance was only used during religious ceremonies, such as the celebration of the goddess of Flora, which eventually took place once a year on April 28. Perfumes were also prominent features at funerals of members of royalty and other wealthy citizens. Like the Greeks, the Romans also cultivated elaborate gardens, but the flowers grown there were typically only used for the garlands worn by maidens during this time.

As the Roman culture rose to prominence, perfume began to be used for state purposes. For example, in the Senate House, which is widely referred to as the “world’s first parliament,” the Alter of Victory was sprinkled daily with fragrant incense prior to the start of business. It was during this period when shaving also became a popular activity for men. Following the use of a razor, the men would massage their faces with scented creams.

The Roman Empire continued to gain power and with it came extravagance. Visitors to the famous Roman baths would be treated to massages with scented ointments and oils following their soak in warm water. Banquet rooms were adorned with fragrant vines, flowers and waters, including the most popular scent brought to Italy by the Marquis de Frandipani, the Plumeria alba.

history_of_perfume_asiaHistory of Perfume: Asia

While Greece and Rome were busy developing their perfumes, the Eastern Asian cultures were developing theirs. In Arabia, for instance, Avicenna became the first Asian to distil oil from flowers. Prior to this discovery, perfumes came primarily from barks and twigs. Other chemists throughout the history of perfume replicated his practice and soon it became the main method of creating fragrances.

People who visited Arabian homes were welcomed with sprinkles of rose water and their coffees would be infused with rose. Following their meal, a bowl of charcoal and incense would be passed around and before the visitors departed, their clothing and beards would be sprinkled with incense as a farewell gesture.

Both India and China used perfumes in religious ceremonies, including funerals and weddings. Sandalwood and patchouli were popular scents in India, whilejasmine, ambrette and ylang-ylang were prominent in Chinese culture. To this day, the religions of Hindu and Shinto place a high importance on fragrances during ceremonial occasions.

history_of_perfume_modern_dayModern Day Culture

At one time, only priests were allowed to manufacture perfumes; however, with the advent of technology and transportation, chemical and processing techniques made their way to other parts of the world. Countries such as Great Britain, Spain and France began colonizing regions in Africa, India, the Far East and America. As these countries expanded their reigns, they adopted the use of perfume for ceremonial and personal purposes. In 1190, during an important time in the history of perfume, Paris became a main hub for the sale of perfume as documented in registered patent letters granted by Henry VI of England.

In the eighteenth century, eau de Cologne became a prevalent form of perfume that combined neroli, bergamot, rosemary and lemon into a refreshing fragrance that had many uses. Some people used it in their baths, while others used it as a mouthwash. It was during this time in the history of perfume, that fragrance manufactures began to experiment with scent combinations to create all new perfumes for different occasions and personalities.

Despite the thousands of years that have passed since perfume was first used, the desire to smell good has not diminished. Men and women both seek fragrances that will illuminate their personalities and enhance their natural beauty. Even though perfume use is no longer restricted to the wealthy and elite, the history of perfume proves these scents are meant to impress. So, the next time you want to wear a scent that gives you the confidence to be who you are, remember the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Asians did the exact same thing centuries before.